Monthly Archives: February 2014

The veneration of water in 12 objects ….number two Lindow Man and the Bog People

Not sure it is wise describing the remains of people as objects…although some would argue many museums do…indeed, the display of such objects has caused some controversy and that one of these bog relics has understandably now been removed from exhibit.

A mistaken murder

Lindow Museum in the London Museum  Photograph by Mike Peel (www.mikepeel.net).

Lindow Museum in the London Museum
Photograph by Mike Peel (www.mikepeel.net).

On the 13th May 1983, commercial peat cutters on Lindow Moss near Wilmslow, Cheshire made a grim discovery, parts of a human skull with hair! Bizarrely, overhearing this discovery was Peter Reyn-Barn, who had long be suspected of murdering his wife in the 1950s but no evidence was ever found. He thought that the ‘jig was up’ and confessed, stating that he had buried her in his back garden which backed onto the bog! The remains were later to be dated to 250AD. He was charged even though this evidence was revealed before the trial, he had confessed after all. Significant perhaps over a year later 1st August 1984, these peat cutters found an even grimmer discovery: the remains of another body, strangled, throat cut and head beaten in. Again not Beyn-Fern wife, her body was never found, but a man of his mid 20s, the most complete bog person found in the UK.  The evidence of two bodies in this area of peat bog was strong evidence of a ritual significance to the peoples in the area over 2000 years ago.

Why peat bogs?

Compared to springs, peat bogs and marshes provide an interesting contrast. They provide water but it would have been generally inaccessible to prehistoric peoples as a source of drinking water, yet they emphasized the very mystery of watery areas; the giving of water by the mother earth. Thus it is perhaps understandable that ritual activities would focus here where the water was less utile but still as unwordly.

Lindow Moss copyright Roger Gittins

Lindow Moss
copyright Roger Gittins

Why was he sacrificed?

Sadly although the majority of authorities agree these are the remains of sacrifices, little supporting evidence survives beyond them. Was he a significant member of the group This is more due to the fragmentary nature of such cultural survivals. One view is that it may be linked to the Celtic head cult, a cult I shall return to again in this blog. Date wise this would be concurrent with the Celtic period when this was undertaken. Who they were sacrificed to is unclear. Anne Ross quoted in Joy’s 2009 book on Lindow Man suggests that the three forms of execution, may suggest different offerings to different gods. Glob (1969) in The Bog People notes:

“the rope nooses which several of the bog people carry round their necks, and which  caused their deaths, are a further sign of sacrifice to the goddess Nerthus. They are perhaps replicas of the twisted neck-rings which are the mark of honour of the goddess, and a sign of consecration to her. The neck-ring is expressly the sign of the fertility goddesses of the period.”

It was Roman Tacitus who recorded that she was celebrated by remote Suebi tribes in Germania. Nerthus was an Anglo-Norse Goddess of fertility which it would be likely transferred to England in the early pagan period of the colonisation, but evidence is scant I believe. Some have suggested it was an opportunist murder. But of course we really may never know. Joy notes:

“The jury really is still out on these bodies, whether they were aristocrats, priests, criminals, outsiders, whether they went willingly to their deaths or whether they were executed – but Lindow was a very remote place in those days, an unlikely place for an ambush or a murder.”

However, again as Glob (1969) notes murder and ritual sacrifice are not so far apart: often murderers would be sacrificed to atone for their guilt and again Tacitus notes:

“cowards, poor fighters and notorious evillivers are plunged in the mud of marshes with a hurdle on their heads.”

Dieck (1963) in The Problem with Bog People has recorded 690 bog bodies, the majority in North-western Europe, the stronghold of the Celts. Glob (1969) in The Bog People records 41 bodies recovered across England and Wales. 15 Scotland, as well as 19 Ireland in bogs, although few are as well preserved as Lindow Man found after his work of course. Less well known is the fact that over 20 years early in August 1958, a severed head was found. This again was thought be a recent murder but primitive chemical tests and X rays suggested at least 100 years. Post Lindow analysis showed him too to show evidence of a ritual killing with remains of a garrotte, although some believed it to be a necklace, from the late Iron Age-Romano British period and was again around 20-30 years old.  The English remains which exist from a window of 1st to 4th centuries is interesting. Indeed The 150 years between the death of Lindow and Worsley man, is a period spanning the late Iron-Age to Roman occupation. What is interesting is that pre-Roman rituals were still clearly being undertaken in a period of occupation, after of course the Romans had outlawed it. It gives support to the survival of any pre-Christian ritual into Christianized times perhaps. What is fascinating about the Lindow Man and his other ‘bog people’ is that they provide a real tangible link to ancient water worship even if we never find out the true reasons for his murder.

A Holy sepulchre Bunyan’s holy Well

The Holy Well by Diane Earl

The Holy Well by Diane Earl

“Just as Christian came up with the cross, his burden loosed from off his shoulders, and fell from off his back, and began to tumble, and so continued to do till it came to the mouth of the sepulchre, where it fell in, and I saw it no more.”

So writes John Bunyan in the puritan classic Pilgrim’s Progress, the sepulchre in question is believed to be Stevington’s Holy Well (SP 990 535) in Bedfordshire. Bunyan only lived five miles away and is known to have preached at the nearby cross and meadows near the well.

Bedfordshire itself is a poorly studied area for holy and healing waters, and Stevington’s sacred spring is the best known and more structurally significant in the county, although a similar structure can be seen at Biddenham Bridge. An account at the time of its listing in 1964 records:

“Well structure. Recess in churchyard wall at East end of church. Stone voussoirs in limestone rubble. Recently restored.”

The Holy Well too is in an unusual location situated beneath the Parish church arising from the rocky outcrop.  Such a location causes much debate amongst antiquarians. Was the church built upon a holy spring purposely to sanctify it? Was it a pagan site? Or is it coincidental? The church is dedicated to St. Mary

The earliest mention of the well is on the Enclosure Award of 1807 reference is made to Hallwell and Wells Pightle. The later 1883 calls it Holy Well. Neither suggests a dedication but as Harte (2008) in his English Holy Wells suggests it may be an ancient Saxon one.  However, Fisher (1812) in the Gentlemen’s magazine records:

“From the rock on which Stevington Church is built issues a spring of clear and most excellent water. This spring is called in old writings, and even to the present time, Holy Well. The principal stream proceeds from the arched recess under the north chancel of the church.”

What these old writings are is unclear, antiquarian Hope (1893) in his Legendary Lore of Holy Wells records:

There is a well or spring at Stevington-on-Ouse, seven miles up the valley from Bedford. On the ordnance six-inch map it is engraved “Holy Well,” in Old English lettering, a plan adopted by them for distinguishing ancient buildings or relics from modern institutions. Stevington holy well is arched over, and built into the churchyard wall of St. Mary’s Church, and abuts upon the modern alluvium of the Ouse, which there forms a considerable flat. The church stands on rising ground, formed of alternating beds of limestone and clay, which holds up the water percolating the limestone-hence, probably, the spring. The water was clear, sparkling, and tasteless, although I was prepared to find it a mineral water of some kind. At one time people visited this holy well in considerable numbers, but, like many others, it appears now to have lost its popularity.”

This lack of regard for the spring is suggested by Harvey (1972-8) in his Hundred of Willey who notes:

“It was the customary to wash sheep from Carlton Hill Farm, and from Stagsden, as well as from Stevington, in Holywell” 

J. Steele Elliott (1933) work on wells of the county in the Bedfordshire Historical Records Society , so far the only account notes that the Manor house was used for ‘invalids and pilgrims attracted by the well’s virtues’.  One of these virtues was to cure eye complaints as well as its waters being renowned in not freezing or drying out.  However, Elliott is probably confusing the manor house for the Hospitium the ruins of which were there in the 1600s and may have been built for pilgrims visiting the well but there is no evidence for either being used!

Well dressing

It would seem that this venerable holy well however is having a new lease of life as a site of well dressing.  This first begun in 2012 for the Jubilee, using a design being based on Bunyan’s Christian standing by the cross and his burden rolling into the said sepulchre, taken from the Parish church and a naturally fitting design. In 2013 they used the window in Bunyan’s Bedford church showing him imprisoned writing from his illuminated cell. Both considering the ‘immaturity’ of the team was brilliantly done.   An account in the St Mary the Virgin Stevington newsletter June 2013 records:

“One of the biggest labours was the Well Dressing. This year Jane O’Connor led a team of volunteers patiently pricking in everything from petals to grasses, from seeds to egg shells to form the representation of the famous picture of Bunyan languishing in his prison cell. An innovation this year was the second collage prepared by the children, somewhat optimistically titled ‘Sunny Stevington.’  In the event the optimism was justified; we had the best two days weather wise of the year so far. We welcomed the Bishop of Bedford for his first visit to Stevington. He rose to the occasion and managed in his sermon to bring together the significance of the Bunyan, the Well and the visit of the Virgin Mary to her cousin Elizabeth under the theme of pilgrimage. The choir sang as well as I have heard and the service was completed with a procession for the Bishop to bless the Well followed by refreshments back in church. It was really gratifying not only to see so many in church, but also to note the number of people who appeared just to see the well dressing.

And long may this tradition continue and bring more modern pilgrims to be drawn into the peaceful place which is Stevington’s Holy Well.

An ancient Celtic sacred spring? Medieval Holy Well? Folly? The mystery of Mother Ludham’s Cave

Image Copyright BabelStone. This work is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic Licence. What’s in a name?

One of the most curious holy wells is that which arises in a site called Mother Ludham’s Cave. The Ludham part of the name is interesting. Early accounts describe a Ludewell, Ludwell or Luddwell. The name is a curious one! A theory is proposed by John Aubrey who tells us that a King of the Saxon, called Lud came here to wash his wounds after a battle nearby.  Another alternative view is that it derives from the Celtic God, Lud. He was said to be associated with healing and a number of wells may be named after him across the country from Lincolnshire to Derbyshire. A less romantic answer is that it comes from the same stem in which loud comes from. This is the view purported by the sign at the site describing it as a bubbling spring. Some authorities believe that the spring was originally called Ludewell, Ludwell or Luddwell and St. Mary’s Well are one in the same. However, this is not clear in The Waverley Annals, 1216 where it is clear there is a difference. It notes how the spring called Ludwell, which had supplied Waverley Abbey, failed and that a Brother Symon dug for fresh water and brought it together at a newly created spring;

“he collected a reliable spring of running water, by his enterprise, as it had not existed naturally… The spring is called St Mary’s well”.

Now what does this mean? Did he dig a well at the Ludwell site or find another? Is the spring arising from the cave the holy well or the original Ludwell. The problem with answering that question lies in the lack of any structural evidence at the site.  However, the name St Mary’s Well only appears on the 1874 Ordnance survey map.

The legend of Mother Ludham

A local legend tells of a local white witch or the fairies who would lend anything to anyone who would require it, especially the peasants, borrowing pots and pans, as long as they said: ‘Mother Ludham, lend me….. And I shall return it in two days.’ However once she lent out a large cauldron, and never had it returned. Consequently she vowed never to lend another item, and moved away, and was never seen again. In another version the Devil stole it after being refused. He took off an in his leaps created the Devil’s Jumps nearby and dropped the kettle at Kettlebury! However, the Cauldron, thought to be a medieval one used to brew beer can still be found in Frensham Church. Another version, states that the local people did not return it.

Loss of goose!

Another local legend remarked upon at a number of holy wells, is that geese and ducks were lost in the cave and appeared several days latter rather worn out and featherless in Guildford, some eight miles away! The earliest reference to this story being 1787 and was published in Frances Grose’s fifth volume of The Antiquities of England and Wales.

Inside the cave

Folly or natural?

The cave itself is interesting. Hewins (1961) in an article for the Journal of the Wessex Cave Club, the Moor Park Sandstone cave, describes it as being large for around 20 feet and then narrows but its passable for around 150ft to which the chamber narrows and is a foot or so high. The source of its formation largely being the stream, never known to dry, which flows through it. It is the larger of two caves nearby, the smallest named after a Victorian ‘hermit’ called Father Foot is nearby but lacks water.  The name is significant does it rather remember the local monks or rather a hermit who lived here and administered people visiting the spring or looked after the supply for the abbey? Theses monks are thought to have possibly enlarged the caves but that seems unlikely. Why enlarge it and not protect it? Most orders who took control of wells made it very clear that they owned the water by enclosing their spring into conduit houses. Although trench work reported in 1985 by Jarrett in an article again in the Wessex Cave club journal called Mother Ludham Cave recorded brickwork remains and mounds which appeared to be part of a formal garden and possibly cascades and reservoir rather than a conduit. Certainly, the evidence is in favour of much of the structure being of a grotto nature, an engraving from 1785 shows a natural cave with a paled fence around.  This would appear to be the work of Sir William Temple who owned the land. A report by William Cobbett in his famed Rural Rides visiting in 1825 is interesting suggesting the presence of some infrastructure presumably as part of a folly such as iron cups, flooring seats and basins. It is said that whilst Temple’s secretary, famed author Jonathan Swift, wrote ‘The Tale of a Tub’ whilst resting in it. Cobbett sadly notes the decline which would be concurrent with decline in follies at this period, noting:

 “Here I showed Richard “Mother Ludlum’s Hole”; but, alas! It is not the enchanting place that I knew it, nor that which Grose describes in his Antiquities! The semicircular paling is gone; the basins to catch the never-ceasing little stream are gone; the iron cups, fastened by chains, for people to drink out of, are gone; the pavement all broken to pieces; the seats, for people to sit on, on both sides of the cave, torn up, and gone; the stream that ran down a clean paved channel, now making a dirty gutter; and the ground opposite, which was a grove, chiefly of laurels, intersected by closely-mowed grass walks, now become a poor ragged-looking alder-coppice.”

However, Manning and Bray (1804–14) do not suggest any evidence of artificial structure in their account:

“there is a copious discharge of a pure, transparent water, issuing from the foot of a hill, and in the bed of a natural grot formed in the sandy rock… From this spring the several offices of Waverley Abbey, near half a mile distant, were supplied.”

Evidence of  an ironstone arched entrance suggests a much later development than this and may have done during Victoria’s reign, post Cobbett to prevent its collapse. In the early 1990s years of neglect was evident inside which could be traversed within, although roof fails suggest it could not be entered with safety. Recently, there has been some concerted effort to preserve the site and a splendid metal gate has been affixed to it as well as an information board and the site certainly looks better than it did in the 1990s when I visited.

For more information check out James Rattue’s Holy Wells of Surrey http://www.amazon.co.uk/Holy-Wells-Surrey-James-Rattue/dp/0954463331